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Comfort Reading: Henry James’ magnum opus takes on new significance

'Portrait of a Lady’ will take you places and make you question the cruelty of humans.

Editor’s note: As many of us shelter at home, Tampa Bay Times staffers write about what they’re reading to escape. Elizabeth Djinis is an editorial writer.

I’m embarrassed to say that I first fell in love with Henry James not through a book, but a movie.

As a child, I was obsessed with watching any kind of period drama I could find. At some point, my father suggested Washington Square. The story was different from the “marriage plot” pieces I generally enjoyed: There was a marriage plot here, but twisted on its head. Whereas Jane Austen might have painted people in a generally sympathetic, if satirical, light, James focused on just how cruel humans can be and how their own formative experiences contribute to their actions later in life. The film broke my heart and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I still do.

I have since read the novella the film is based on, as well as a number of James’ short stories. But as self-isolation and quarantine came upon us, I realized I had never read James’ magnum opus, The Portrait of a Lady. The book opens in a countryside estate in England, where a young American woman, Isabel Archer, meets her extended family for the first time. Archer has come to England through a Grand Tour-like proposal from her maternal aunt, who resides part time in England and Italy. Like many of James’ works, the book is an exploration of the American expatriate mindset and the differences between Europeans and Americans. The evocative scenes take the reader from urban London to the ruins of Rome and the beautiful medieval halls of Florence. It is likely the closest I will come to traveling in the next few months.

But the central tension of the entire novel is: Who will Isabel Archer marry? Isabel is an unusual character, and I at times found it grating how often a character seemed to fall in love with her at first glance. What I appreciate about James is that he does not fall prey to some of the dream girl stereotypes that authors before (and after) him have. Isabel is charming, beautiful, intelligent, and yet, James admits, she is deeply flawed. She makes mistakes. Her life is not rosy and the reader will not necessarily agree with all — or any! — of her decisions. The reader may not even root for her. But you will always want to know where she goes next.

Yet The Portrait of a Lady is as much about the internal as it is about the external. Critics often complain that, in a James novel, nothing much happens. There, I disagree. The drama is subtle but ever-present, like in the charged interactions between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. I love that James realizes that people are not all good or all bad. He embraces the jagged edges of characters. For some, there are heroes and villains. But to James, there are only people who make decisions based on their circumstances. Love them or hate them, you might. But by the end of the novel, you will understand them.

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